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The audience is the star of first debate in St. Pete City Council race

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

With nine candidates vying to become the next City Council member representing St.Petersburg’s District 6, political forums and debates are going to be crucial for voters to understand who all of the people are who are running and what they stand for.

On Thursday night at the Sunshine Center, the public got its first opportunity to hear from all of the candidates, although the event was designed for the candidates to actually listen more than speak. Those on stage heard from numerous members from St. Pete’s south side.

Gentrification. Affordable housing, or the lack of it. Reparations for the black community. The education system. Protection against the police. Economic inequality. Helping those coming out of prison reintegrating back into the community.

These were the central themes that the candidates heard as the program presented by the People’s Budget Review was to let the community let the candidates know what was on their mind and what they care most about.

The evening began with the eight candidates present (Sharon Russ did not attend the forum) giving brief introductions and explaining what their about.

“Many of you already know me. If you don’t, perhaps you’ve read allegations about me,” cracked Corey Givens Jr, speaking about the Tampa Bay Times report about him depositing a $500 campaign contribution into his personal checking account.

“I’m focused on the real issues, because what I’ve learned is that politics is a dirty game, and a lot of times you’ve just got to roll with the punches.”

With a notable number of members of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement in the house, no candidate received more cheers from the audience then its own candidate, Eritha “Akile” Cainion.

“The black community is finally on the agenda, so everything that you just talked about is on a platform of economic development, on a platform of radical solutions to these radical times,” she said, bringing down the house.

Jim Jackson said the best way to break multigenerational poverty is to give somebody a home and said he would have ideas to present incremental change to that issue.

In what appeared to be a slap at the youthful Givens Jr., Maria Scruggs, the president of the St. Petersburg’s NAACP chaptersaid the election was for City Council, “not student council.”

After the opening comments, there was  about 35 minutes of comments from the public, and then the candidates had a maximum of three minutes to respond.

Givens Jr. returned Scruggs volley.

“Some of these candidates sitting on this dais have been in our community for 10-15-20-30 plus years, yet we still have the same results, so my question for you is: where is the change?” he asked. “Do we keep listening to the same political rhetoric and not get any new results or do we introduce new ideas and new solutions to the same old problems that have been plaguing us for years?”

Scruggs followed up by saying any inference that there are candidates sitting on the panel who have been “a part of the oppression, that can be the farthest from the truth.”

She said the campaign was going to be in part about those who talk about what they’re going to do, and those who’ve talked about what they’ve accomplished.

James Scott followed Givens Jr. as the second candidate to respond to the variety of community responses, and he admitted that it was a challenge.

“I’m hoping that in future forums we get a few minutes to collect our thoughts…there’s so many meaningful issues here that there’s no way I can cover for three minutes without being able to prepare,” he said.

But he gamely tried.

“I’m mad too,” he said. “There’s injustice in this community that people who look like me, they did that,” said Scott, who is white. “Their negativity and their greed that put this community in the situation that’s it’s in.”

He said the hatred had to be answered with love.

Gina Driscoll said she was going to work hard to make sure that everyone can share in success in District 6. “That means building on what’s working, and fixing on what needs to be improved, and we heard tonight that list is pretty long,” she said.

Like several of the other candidates, she said that “we won’t succeed with a divisive approach.”

Cainion took a shot at the candidate she’s trying to succeed, a term-limited Karl Nurse, who she dubbed “the biggest land grabber in the entire district.”

Real estate investor Robert Blackmon said that there was a huge shortage of skilled workers in the city, so there needs to be more training.

He also bemoaned the fact of the lack of businesses in MidTown, where he used to live. “There is a real issue of how do people get what they need in their neighborhoods,” he said.

Businessman Justin Bean promised the audience he would listen first, and then lead.

He talked about creating programs for youth who’ve gone through the juvenile system, and decried the city’s failure to fund early childhood programs.

For all of the candidates it was a taste of what the debate season will be like this summer. With so many running, they’ll spend the majority of their time at such forums listening, making it crucial when they do get their chance to speak publicly on the issues.

(Update: An earlier version of this story said that there are 10 candidates in the race, but Ziya Kardas dropped out of the contest last week).

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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